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William Guthrie Spence, Labour Pioneer

By Harry Knowles*

William Guthrie Spence William Guthrie Spence remains a legendary figure in the history of the Australian labour movement. As much maligned in recent times as he was celebrated by earlier historians of the movement, Spence continues to sustain a position of dominance in any account of the growth and development of trade unionism in Australia. Spence was a prominent player both industrially and politically for working people. His achievement of securing a federal ministry between 1914 and 15 was the symbolic consummation of his long-held belief that the ultimate salvation of the worker lay in the implementation of “the larger reforms absolutely necessary to effect social reconstruction”.

William Guthrie Spence (third from right) at the first Commonwealth Trade Union Congress, Sydney 1902. The labour movement's nationwide political and industrial growth following Federation in 1901 owed a considerable debt to Spence's role, from the 1870s, in mobilising workers into both unions and political organisation.
Photo credit: State Library of NSW

W. G. Spence was born at Eday, a village in the Orkney Isles off the coast of Scotland, in August 1846, the son of James Maxwell Spence, a stonemason and staunch Presbyterian, and his wife, Jane (nee Guthrie). Not a lot is known of William’s early childhood, but it seems that the family emigrated to the Victorian goldfields in early 1852, settling first in Geelong and then moving to Spring Hill, near Creswick early in the following year. Spence had no formal schooling although his mother had taught he and his brother to read from the bible before they reached the age of six. Later, Spence received occasional lessons from a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin but most of his beliefs were shaped by reading the works of the early social reformers such as Bellamy, Blatchford, Ruskin and Morris. He began his working life as a shepherd but by the age of nine was toiling down the pit in Victorian mines. (1)

By age twelve, he was earning a man’s wage but miners then were paid very low wages for the privilege of working in an environment where the air was rank and foul due to a lack of ventilation. Spence later recalled that he “worked many an eight hour shift where no candle would burn” and soon contracted silicosis or ‘miners’ lung’ which troubled him throughout his life eventually developing into pulmonary pneumonia. Spence married Anne Jane, daughter of William Savage of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in June 1871 who bore him nine children. In these early years, Spence was a prominent figure in the Creswick community; he became secretary and Sunday School superintendent for Creswick Presbyterian Church and during the 1880s often preached with the Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians. A teetotaller, Spence was a leading Temperance advocate and became and an influential member of the local debating society. He was a borough councillor from 1884 and became a justice of the peace in 1888. He remained closely attached to Creswick and held the office of vice-president of the Old Creswickian Society at the time of his death in 1926. (2)

Spence and the Amalgamated Mining Association
Spence is more commonly known as the ‘father’ of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union however his career in unionism began in the metaliferous mining industry.

Mining unionism in Victoria developed as a consequence of company mining from the 1860s. Spence talked about the formation of a Miners’ Association in 1872 but gives no other details. It seems likely than there was no viable mining union presence in the Colony until the successful strike for an eight hour day in Stawell in 1874 led to the emergence of a number of unions in other mining centres. It was shortly after this event and in the same year that a conference of miners held in Bendigo resolved to consolidate these small associations of goldminers under the banner of an Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Victoria (AMA). The AMA adopted rules based on the those of the National Miners’ Association of Great Britain and had some success in persuading the colonial government to legislate for better hours and working conditions for its members. Within a few years however, the Association had declined to the extent that it consisted of only three branches with a total of two hundred and fifty members. (3)

An attempt to reduce the wages of miners in the Creswick district proved the catalyst in the resurgence of mining unionism. The Creswick miners, including Spence, rallied against the mine owners and at a well-attended meeting held on 11 July 1878, a Creswick branch of the AMA was formed with Spence elected secretary, a position he was to hold for sixteen years. The miners won and, having learnt from previous attempts to form a viable union, agreed that a change in organising principles was necessary if the union was to secure a permanent membership base. The Creswick organisation became an accident society as well as a trade union and took over the existing company accident funds as well as providing a more liberal benefits scheme. If any compulsion was needed to secure the membership of all miners in this district, this was the tactic which achieved it. A closed shop was enforced and sustained for over thirty years. (4)

Led by Spence, the Creswick miners became essentially the organisers for the AMA. He became general secretary of the AMA in 1882 and straightway worked to expand the movement.. His ambition was to consolidate all miners, gold, silver, copper and coal, under the one umbrella organisation and to form an Intercolonial Council to tackle the big issues and arrange financial aid in cases of need. The respective colonial districts would remain self-governing bodies in their own sphere. Within eleven years, Spence had achieved his goal. AMA branches were established in every colony, including Tasmania and both islands of New Zealand. All miners, irrespective of the form of mining involved, were united, albeit loosely, and the AMA boasted a membership of 23,500. However, it did not last. Spence severed links with the AMA in 1891-2 and the intercolonial organisation broke up shortly after. Spence attributed the break-up to the increasing conservatism within the union hierarchy. (5)

Spence brought to the AMA a leader who was “moderate and conciliatory, but firm on fundamentals”. He was not a great orator – in fact he was somewhat awkward as a speaker. He was not a theorist but was “amiable and patient”. Importantly, he was a most attentive listener, a trait which endeared him to those of all political persuasions. He claimed later in his career that he had never refused a conference. Nevertheless, his firmness on the fundamentals remained a constant, demonstrated by the fact that the AMA was involved in twenty-nine strikes by 1890. (6)

Spence and the shearers. The Formation of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union
Prior to 1886 there had been a number of unsuccessful attempts to unionise shearers. As Spence himself suggests, the prime reason for this lack of success was the fact that itinerant workers who work in an occupation for only part of the year are notoriously difficult to organise. (7) The events leading to the foundation of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (ASU) have been well-documented. (8) The catalyst was a newspaper advertisement placed by pastoralists in western New South Wales advising of a cut in the shearing rate. From this point, Spence places himself firmly in the centre of activities surrounding the formation of the ASU. However, there is little doubt that the impetus came from the enthusiasm and persistence of a young Victorian shearer named David Temple. Temple’s indignation at the pastoralists’ action led him to invest his own hard-earned money and energy into securing allies to form a union of shearers. (9)

What does seem clear is that Temple sought the experience and expertise of W. G. Spence at an early stage of the union formation. Temple would have been well aware of Spence’s leadership role in the AMA as he also worked as a miner and was a member of that union. The debate over the role played by Temple and Spence in the formation of the ASU should in no way detract from Spence’s important role in concerted recruitment drive for members of the emerging ASU during 1886 and 1887. Temple himselfrealised that Spence was “a respected and well-known figure in central Victoria” and possessed the credibility Temple needed to sell his fledgling union to potentially sceptical shearers.


In April 1889, an unnamed correspondent (possibly Temple) who had visited many sheds in the year of the union’s inception (1886) reported of Spence in the Shearers’ Record :

Everywhere he was received with open arms, and in very few instances indeed did he meet with a refusal to join the new Union. The fact of Mr Spence being connected with it gave the shearers confidence in the outcome as several of them had heard of the good work he had done in furthering the cause of trades’ unionism, and as the leading executive officer of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association. …. The name of Mr Spence… had its effect and I have no doubt the success the movement has attained is in no small measure due to the confidence felt by the shearers in the integrity of the gentleman who has so worthily and ably filled the presidency from its inception. (11)

As ASU president, Spence was not merely a figurehead. The mere fact that he was part of the union leadership group gave the union, in John Merritt’s words, ‘an aura of solidarity.’ Spence did much valuable organising in the towns, speaking to shearers who had been mobilised by resident agents and union branch secretaries. He would first discuss their grievances, then argue their right as respectable hard-working men to improved working conditions. He would then tell them that the union was their only means of salvation. He was also a frequent writer to newspapers, explaining the union’s objectives and contesting the arguments of its opponents. (12)

Spence would tell public meetings, often attended by pastoralists as well as by townspeople that unionism was a means by which social change could be accomplished. He emphasised the moral impropriety of cheating and defrauding working people and leaving them constantly at the dictates of the forces of the market.

In the shearer’s union Spence could begin to see the shape of the trade union which would accommodate the structure for the new society. (13) Spence wrote some years later in Australia’s Awakening: “In organising a new society … it is well to watch for a favourable opportunity. There are waves of feeling which pass over men’s minds, and it is best to take one of those occasions when something has arisen to arouse a feeling either of discontent or of a desire to become a part of a big movement. It is best for some experienced officer of a Union already in existence in the same trade to get the new society under way”. (14) This then, is how Spence saw his role, not as an organiser in the field but as the organiser of the organisers – the one who would drive both the AMA and the ASU into association with unions in other trades to form his inter-colonial congress.

Others, particularly Temple, helped to establish the union in major pastoral areas and the early branch secretaries did more than Spence to foster the growth of the ASU. Spence was not blind to the work and the worth of others and acknowledged as much in Australia’s Awakening. (15)

Yet Spence’s reputation and proven ability as a union leader was undeniably critical in the ASU’s survival and development. His public addresses always drew good audiences and were accorded comprehensive coverage by the local newspapers and occasionally his words would receive favourable editorial commentary. Even the Melbourne Argus, a committed supporter of pastoralists and no friend of the emerging trade union movement, conceded that Spence was indeed well-meaning in his proselytising. He was imperturbable even when provoked although his friendly and agreeable disposition concealed a ‘calculating’ mind. (16)

Spence and the 1890 Maritime Strike
The ASU involvement in the Maritime Strike has been more than adequately documented elsewhere (17) however discussion over Spence’s role in the dispute and its consequences for his reputation as a labour movement leader has been the subject of some controversy. Pastoralists were becoming increasingly united in a campaign to force ‘freedom of contract’ against the ASU’s unwavering determination to force a ‘closed shop’ in the shearing industry. In rejecting a somewhat open-ended offer of compromise from the Pastoralists’ Union of New South Wales (PUNSW), Spence had forwarded it a copy of the ASU manifesto which included a threat ‘to draw such a cordon around the Australian continent as will effectively prevent a bale of wool leaving unless shorn by union shearers’. Although presumably unintended, this had the consequence of ensuring the ascendancy of the anti-union faction within the PUNSW and marginalising those pastoralists who were advocating an accommodation with the union and an acceptance of its role within the industry. (18)

Spence believed it was the role of the ‘Employers’ Federation’ (19) in galvanising the support of all ‘anti-Labor forces’ which ensured ‘the whole of the organised forces of capitalists and workers were driven into two hostile camps’. (20) As the non-union wool began arriving in Sydney, the Mercantile Marine Officers’ Association struck in protest against the ship owners’ refusal to countenance their affiliation with labour councils. The Association was able to call-in promises of support from combined union organisations and the non-union wool issue fuelled the situation. By 20 August 1890, seamen, wharf labourers and coal lumpers were on strike in sympathy with the marine officers or in protest against the loading of non-union wool. The dispute escalated and, over all, as many as 50,000 workers downed tools for periods of a few days up to two months. (21)

The maritime unions were losing the battle. In every port, there was always a surfeit of unemployed men willing to act as strike breakers but as well as contending with scab labour, the unions were faced -off by the police, the military, Parliament, the conservative press and the combined employers. The ASU had been involved in the organisation of the dispute since Spence’s appointment as head of the Labour Defence Committee on 11 August but as time went on the union came under increasing pressure to join the dispute. On 24 September 1890 the membership was called on to strike. The Australian Town and Country Journal reported an estimated 35,000 shearers and shedhands obeyed the order. (22) But it may never have been Spence’s intention to involve the ASU in such a wide dispute. It seems he had intended any dispute be confined and easily controlled. However, instead, he found himself caught up in a much wider struggle, ‘beyond his control and his comprehension’. (23)

Spence’s role in the dispute tarnished his reputation as “ a man of genius in his organising and negotiating skills” (24), at least among labour movement historians. Spence had devoted his time and industry to the AMA and the ASU for over twenty years and it is more than likely that “he knew nothing of maritime conditions and little of maritime unions”. As the ‘effective head’ of the Labour Defence Committee, Spence must carry much of the responsibility for the committee’s strategy and tactics. But whatever judgements might be made about Spence’s role in the 1890 dispute, the reality for Spence was that he was never again given a general leadership position in the industrial labour movement. (25)

Spence and the lessons of 1890
Nevertheless, Spence did learn from the strike. The survival of the Australian labour movement lay in the unionisation of all workers and their subsequent enrolment on colonial electoral rolls. The union wasted little time announcing a campaign to enrol ASU members to vote for working-class candidates in the 1892 Victorian elections at the same time it notified the strike’s collapse. Unions had to work harder, said Spence as they “lacked that federation which not only ensures united action when necessary, but checks hasty action which often leads to serious trouble”. Poor unionisation meant that shearers union would be continually out-manoeuvred by capital so long it could employ non-union labour during strikes. (26)

Spence and Temple understood that the first move in this direction must come in the organisation of all those workers who laboured beside the shearers in the sheds and on the stations. The ASU had decided to form a General Woolshed Labourers’ Union (later renamed the General Labourers’ Union – GLU) in July 1890 and by its inaugural conference in February 1891(at which Spence was elected Secretary), ASU organisers had managed to recruit over 5000 members. It was to be another two years, in February 1894, following two defeats at the hands of ASU members before Spence and the ASU leadership could announce the amalgamation of the ASU and the GLU to form an Australian Workers’ Union. Spence was unanimously elected the new secretary. (27)

Only weeks after the end of the Maritime Strike, Spence declared that its failure “should stir every member of the ASU to a sense of the importance of securing a place on the electoral lists”. Spence had been promoting political representation as a means of redressing social injustice since 1884. To Spence, political Labor meant nothing more than “carrying Unionism into politics.” (28)

Following the debacle of 1890, Spence directed his energies into turning the ASU/AWU into the flagship of the Australian trade union movement. These were difficult years for the union- years of economic crisis and confrontation by a more confident, aggressive and organised pastoralist opposition. A number of strikes in the pastoral industry between 1891 and 1894 had placed the union under strain both financially and in terms of leadership and membership tensions. However, through Spence’s tenacity and the resourcefulness of organisers of the like of Macdonnell and a young Edward Grayndler, both of whom would later become general secretary, the union survived. In 1898, Spence won the New South Wales Legislative Assembly seat of Cobar and passed the mantle of the general secretary’s position to Macdonell in exchange for the AWU presidency which he held until 1917. In 1901, he was elected to the first Australian Federal parliament as the member for Darling in the far west of New South Wales. (29)

The Final Years
Spence’s entry into the world of federal politics did not signify the end of industrial activity although as time went on there are suggestions that his presidency of the AWU became more insecure. By 1902, the AWU executive increasingly viewed Spence as a ‘spent force in the active prosecution of the union’s affairs’ and there were concerns about his poor health and failing memory. (30)

In 1909, in the face of growing opposition to his presidency and a growing threat to the union from the International Workers of the World (IWW), (31) Spence, with the help of his son-in-law and Worker manager, Henry Lamond, published Australia’s Awakening which promoted the organisation of bushworkers and the 1890 strike as the keystone of Australian trade unionism. In 1911 he wrote his History of the AWU and subsequently published several pamphlets. Spence finally broke with the AWU during the anti-conscription crisis during 1916-17. Prior to 1916 Spence was a staunch anti-conscriptionist along with the rest of his colleagues on the AWU Executive. However, as Commonwealth Postmaster-General, he voted along with his parliamentary leader, W. M. Hughes for conscription. He was known to be ill and there are suggestions that he was either tricked or badgered by Hughes and Lamond to change his view. In deference to his prior service to the union, he was the only AWU member allowed to resign from the union over the vote – the remainder were expelled. (32)

Spence’s rejection by the party he helped to found resulted in the loss of his seat in 1917 but he won the seat of Darwin (Tasmania) that same year in a by-election as a Nationalist candidate. He stood unsuccessfully for the Victorian seat of Batman in 1919. He died in December 1926 of pulmonary oedema at the age of eighty. (33)

Although only one of the founders of the ASU/AWU, Spence’s experience and drive was fundamental to the union’s survival in its formative years. His experience in organising miners and later leading the AMA was critical to the successful organisation of pastoral workers, similarly dispersed and migratory.

Spence was a visionary leader. The AWU needed to exercise a powerful influence in Australian affairs so Spence’s vision for the transformation of Australian society could be achieved. Undeterred by the crushing defeats of the early 1890s, He played a prominent role in rebuilding the AWU and in the progressive march of the labour movement’s political wing. He was the first leader of the union charged with the preservation of the values and principles which had shaped its foundation in 1886. His stumble during the Maritime Strike suggests that his power base was weakened after the 1890 defeats.

Spence also had his weaknesses. He was far from a great orator yet he understood the bushworker – after all, he had been one himself. He was capable of misjudgment – his role in the Maritime Strike bears testament to this - and self-aggrandisement on occasions. Yet for the most part, his organising and industrial strategies were successful. He was responsible in no small way for the formation, the growth and the industrial success of a union which dominated the political and industrial relations landscape of Australia for over fifty years and remains influential in both fields today.

1. W.G. Spence, Australia’s Awakening. Thirty Years in the Life of An Australian Agitator, The Worker Trustees, Sydney, 1909, p. 355.
2. Spence, Australia’s Awakening, p. 20; C. Lansbury, ‘William Guthrie Spence’, Labour History, No. 13, November 1967, p.4; Lansbury and Nairn, op. cit., pp. 168-9; John A Graham, Early Creswick: the first century, Melbourne, Arbuckle, Waddell, 1942, p. 139.
3. Frank Bongiorno, The People’s Party. Victorian Labour and the Radical Tradition 1875-1914, Melbourne University Press, 1996, p. 27.
4. It would seem that the branch formed in Creswick in 1878 was a new branch and not ‘revived’ as Spence claimed. H. H. Pearce ,The “Amalgamated Miners’ Association” and the Creswick Gold Fields’, Recorder, vol. 3, no. 4 June 1968, Melbourne Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, pp. 1-2; Spence, Australia’s Awakening, pp. 21-24.
5. Spence, Australia’s Awakening, pp. 23-24; Lansbury and Nairn, op.cit., p. 169.
6. Lansbury and Nairn, op. cit., p. 168; Ross McMullin, A Light on the Hill. The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p.1; Lansbury, op. cit., p. 4.
7. John Merritt, The Making of the AWU, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 86-9; Spence, Australia’s Awakening, p. 47.
8. See W. G. Spence, History of the AWU, The Worker Trustees, Sydney, 1961; Merritt, op. cit. ; M Hearn and H Knowles, One Big Union. A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
9. See Merritt, pp. 92-100; Hearn and Knowles, pp. 23-4; Clyde R. Cameron, “‘A man is never dead until he is forgotten’ David Temple: Founder of the ASU”, Labour History (60), May 1991, pp. 93-4.
10. Merritt, p. 95; Hearn and Knowles, p. 28.
11. Shearers’ Record, April 1889.
12. Merritt, p. 104.
13. Lansbury, op.cit., p. 5.
14. Spence, Australia’s Awakening, p. 337.
15. Spence, Australia’s Awakening, pp. 53-4.
16. Merritt, p. 105.
17. Merritt, The Making of the AWU, pp. 154-164; Hearn and Knowles, pp. 43-8.
18. Merritt, pp. 159-62.
19. Presumably either the New South Wales Employers’ Union which was coordinating plans to ensure the movement of non-union wool or the Sydney-based Employers’ Mutual Defence Association which Merritt notes was formed during the Maritime Strike, Merritt, p. 162, 192.
20. Spence, History of the AWU, pp. 33-4.
21. Merritt, p. 163.
22. Hearn and Knowles, pp. 43-4; Merritt, p. 166.
23. ibid.
24. Serle, G., The Rush to be Rich. A History of the Colony of Victoria 1883-1889, Melbourne University Press, 1971, p. 112.
25. Nairn, N. B., Some aspects of the development of the Labor movement in New South Wales 1870-1900: and the effects of the development on the formation and early history of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1889-1900, unpublished M. A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1955, pp. 199, 212.
26. Hearn and Knowles, pp. 46-7.
27. Hearn and Knowles, pp. 47, 70-2.
28. Minutes of Evidence of the NSW Royal Commission on the Strike, 1891, p. 367; Lansbury, ‘William Guthrie Spence’, p. 6.
29. Hearn and Knowles, pp. 78-93; Lansbury and Nairn, ‘William Guthrie Spence’ pp. 169-170.
30. Hearn and Knowles, p. 95; Lansbury, pp. 6-7.
31. Lansbury, p. 8 although Lansbury does not source this allegation.
32. Lansbury and Nairn, p. 170; Hearn and Knowles, p. 122.
33. Lansbury and Nairn, p. 170.

Copyright. Do not cite without the permission of the author.

* Dr Harry Knowles, Research Associate, Work and Organisational Studies University of Sydney.

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